Two Coffins: Death of Mary and Murder of Eli T. Coffin 1873

Victim

Mary Rosette Coffin
43-year-old Farm Wife
1830-1873
Cause of Death: Hypothermia, Starvation
Motive: Family Neglect and Abuse

Victim

Eli T. Coffin
43-year-old Farmer
1829-1873
Cause of Death: Gunshot, Hanged
Motive: Vigilantism

Death Scenes and Dates

Coffin Home
Turkey Grove (Now Grove City)
Atlantic Township
Cass County, Iowa
New Year’s Day 1873

Bridge over Turkey Creek
5-and-a-half Miles South of Atlantic
Cass County, Iowa
February 1, 1873

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By Nancy Bowers
Written February 2014

location of Atlantic, Iowa

location of Atlantic, Iowa

No doubt about it, Eli T. Coffin — a prosperous Cass County, Iowa, farmer — was odd, even “peculiar” his neighbors said.

But no one who knew him was prepared for the deadly strangeness that unfolded in his life and that of his family in early 1873.

Eli Coffin had wandered the United States from his birthplace in New York State to Iowa, Ohio, Texas, Nebraska, and then back to Iowa.

Along with him traveled his wife Mary Rosette and their children, Emily, William, and Alice.

In the early winter of 1872, the Coffin family was living near Turkey Grove (the historic name for Grove City) in Atlantic Township of Cass County, Iowa. They received their mail at Lewis.

☛ Illness Stalks the Coffin House ☚

Mary Coffin became very sick — what nature her illness took is not known. A clue may lie in her not being listed with the family in the 1870 Census, which may indicate she was residing in a sanatorium at that time for ill health.

1875 plat of Atlantic Township

1875 plat of Atlantic Township

But what was known was that she required great tending. Eli conveyed to neighbors the understanding that he was acting as Mary’s care-giver.

But the sickness persisted and visitors could see that Mary needed the ministrations of a physician, whom Eli, despite being well off, did not want to summon.

It appeared that Eli ignored Mary — neglecting to feed her, dispense medicine, or keep her warm against the bitter weather.

As their oldest daughter Emily was certainly old enough at 20 to look after and feed her mother, she may have been kept from it by her father perhaps through threats or emotional abuse.

By the time Eli Coffin finally relented to call a physician, it was already too late. On New Year’s Day of 1873, Mary died.

Justice H.T. Sharp was called to act as Coroner — a position the County had irregularly filled during the early decades of its existence — and he convened a jury to hear particulars of the death. Appointed to the panel were Atlantic dry goods merchant L.C. Bishop and store clerks Thomas P. Bruington and J.B. Allman.

On January 14, an autopsy was performed by Doctors O.B. Thompson, N. Richards, and Dr. J.H. Barnwell of Atlantic.

Mary Coffin’s cause of death was determined to be failure to thrive and hypothermia.

☛ Taint of Insanity? ☚

While the death inquest was being heard, Eli Coffin was detained for being insane — surely, the County argued, a man in control of his full faculties would not let his wife sicken, starve, and die without lifting a hand.

The Cass County Insanity Commission, however, examined Eli Coffin and declared him sane.

☛ Legal Charges ☚

Once Eli Coffin was found to be responsible for his actions, Cass County authorities — E.E. Herbert was Sheriff — acted quickly to bring about justice in the death of Mary Coffin.

Coffin was charged with not taking care of his wife and summoning a doctor only after the victim was beyond help, causing her death. He was arrested and held on $800 bail.

Defense Attorney Charles Franklin Loofbourow (State of Iowa)

Defense Attorney Charles Franklin Loofbourow
(State of Iowa)

The preliminary hearing in the case was scheduled for January 27, 1873.

Defense Attorney Loren L. DeLano

Defense Attorney Loren L. DeLano
(State of Iowa)

To defend himself against the charges, Eli Coffin retained attorneys Charles Franklin Loofbourow (later a 13th Judicial Circuit Court Judge) and future Iowa State Legislator Loren L. DeLano of Lewis.

Arthur Smith Churchill, a decorated Civil War soldier, assisted by an attorney named Brown, were assigned by the State of Iowa to prosecute.

☛ A Killer Is Murdered ☚

Prosecuting Attorney Arthur Smith Churchill

Prosecuting Attorney Arthur Smith Churchill

Eli Coffin was granted a continuation for the hearing until February 3. However, his day in court was not to be.

On Sunday afternoon, February 2, Coffin was found hanging by a rope around his neck from a bridge across Turkey Creek five-and-a-half miles south of Atlantic.

Investigators discovered he was fatally shot in the head — likely on Saturday night, February 1; then his dead body had been suspended from the bridge beam.

A coroner’s jury ruled that Eli Coffin “came to his death in a manner to the jury unknown.” No one was charged, tried, or convicted in his homicide.

With the death of Eli Coffin came the certainty that there would be no legal justice for his wife either, a woman whom he had killed with neglect.

It was difficult for the community to feel sympathy for a man who let his wife waste away and die when she could have been saved. That attitude was reflected in the cold headline “Served Him Right,” which appeared in the Dubuque Herald.

☛ Vigilantism? ☚

With sentiments running strong against Eli Coffin, it’s likely that a group of people in the community decided to insure that some type of justice be meted out to the man who so cruelly let his wife die.

from the Dubuque Herald

from the Dubuque Herald

It’s impossible to know if Eli Coffin would’ve been bound over to a Grand Jury or a trial following the hearing, but those who were stirred up about the death of Mary Coffin wanted to insure he did not escape prosecution and conviction. The homicide of Eli Coffin was timed to occur two days before the preliminary hearing.

The community no doubt had learned from the coroner’s jury report about the state of Mary’s body after her ill treatment.

In the house, three children were left motherless: Mary was 20 and not yet married; William was 16; and Alice was 13. Certainly old enough to form a plot and no doubt having access to a gun and a rope on the farm, the children possibly attacked their father. But it would have taken at least two of them to carry the body in a wagon to the Turkey Creek bridge where it was suspended.

As for other avengers, Mary’s father died in 1860, her brothers-in-law and only brother resided in other states. Who was there to take up the cause of frontier justice against her killer other than the locals who had watched the poor woman suffer?

It seems likely that the type of violent action carried out against Eli T. Coffin required the strength and numbers of many men. And, above all, secrecy. Although difficult to obtain, the latter was enforced and the true nature of Eli Coffin’s murder was never revealed.

☛ Life of Mary R. Coffin ☚

Mary Rosette Carter was born in 1830 to Clarissa Putney and Franklin Hubbard Carter. She had four siblings: sisters Celestia Melvina Carter Simmons, Rosinda Jane Carter Kellogg, and Lydia S. Carter, as well as one brother, Delevan Knight Carter. In the 1850 Census, she was living in Conneaut in Ashtabula County, Ohio, where it is likely she was born.

According to the U.S. and International Marriage Records, 1560-1900, Mary Rosette married Eli T. Coffin in Iowa about 1850.

Their first child, Emily Carter Coffin (Bishop) was born June 9, 1853 in Ashtabula, Ohio. By the time William Henry Coffin was born in October 1856, the Coffin family was living in Division, Hill County, Texas, as they still were in January 1860, when their last child — Alice I. Coffin (Dunn) — was born.

☛ Life of Eli Coffin ☚

Eli T. Coffin was born March 12, 1829 in Madilla in Otsego County, New York, married Mary Rosette Carter about 1850 in Iowa, started his family of three children in Ohio, lived for several years in Division, Texas, and then in Omaha before settling onto his considerable farming property near Turkey Grove, in Cass County Iowa.

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Please note: Use of information from this article should credit Nancy Bowers as the author and Iowa Unsolved Murders: Historic Cases as the source.

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References

  • ☛ 1875 Cass County Plat, IAGenWeb-Cass County.
  • ☛ “The Coffin Case,” History of Cass County, Iowa. Springfield, Illinois: Continental Historical Company, 1884, p. 280.
  • ☛ IAGenWeb-Cass County.
  • ☛ “Served Him Right,” Dubuque Herald February 4, 1873.
  • ☛ U.S. Census.
  • U.S. and International Marriage Records, 1560-1900.

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